World Cup star Cristiano Ronaldo ‘born to be the best’ says Iran’s former Manchester United and Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz
Father figure from time at Old Trafford likens superstar in the making to Arnold Schwarzenegger learning to dance the tango
“I was once in my office at Manchester United’s training complex at Carrington and saw something moving in the trees far away,” recalls Iran boss Carlos Queiroz, a Portuguese national. Iran play Ronaldo’s Portugal tonight in the World Cup in Saransk.
“Maybe it was a spy,’ was Queiroz’s first thought. ‘We used to have them. I called security and they went check the suspicious figure out. Their answer? ‘It’s Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s training alone’. He was unique.”
“I worked with some outstanding young Portuguese players like Rui Costa, Jorge Costa, Luis Figo, Joao Pinto and Paulo Sousa. I worked with very good players at Manchester United and Real Madrid, but when I saw the young Cristiano I could tell his potential was the best I’d ever seen in a player,” declares Queiroz.
His Iran side were unbeaten for almost four years in competitive matches until last week’s 1-0 reverse against Spain after a deflected goal from Diego Costa finally overcame their stubborn resistance.
Iran kept 18 clean sheets in those 22 competitive games unbeaten. All this despite difficulties caused by the tough sanctions imposed on their country. Iran struggled to find opponents for friendly matches, to find equipment for training.
Iran need to beat Portugal, who Queiroz has also managed – twice, between 1991 and 1993 and again between 2008-2010 when he had some rough moments with Ronaldo in his team. Victory will make sure of qualification and a first ever appearance in the knockout stages.
Queiroz, who was born in what was then Portuguese Mozambique, also coached Portugal’s under-20 sides to twice be world champions.
As Manchester United’s assistant manager how crucial was he in making Ronaldo the player he is today?
“You’ll have to ask Cristiano if he thinks I was important in his development,” Queiroz replies, “but from my perspective, after a couple of weeks at the start of the 2003-04 season, I called him to my office and said: ‘Look, this is very simple. You were born to be the best player in the world. This is a gift you have; it could be your destiny. It’s up to you to commit yourself to become the best player in the world.
“If you are ready to reach that goal, we start working towards it tomorrow and you’ll have my full support because it’s not enough for you to be a great player. You need to understand that God gave you the skills and opportunity to be the best, but if you want to be only one more player, I’ll treat you like I treat the others.”
There was a knock at Queiroz’s Carrington office the following morning.
“It was Cristiano,” recalls the 65-year-old. “He simply said: ‘I’m ready’. He started that very day. It was very rare to see in a young player so much talent and such a strong personality, purpose, persistence and commitment. I read about Arnold Schwarzenegger learning to dance the tango. He was obsessed to be a perfectionist. Cristiano is the same.”
Countless former United players have their own stories about Ronaldo’s dedication.
“He was always the best at step overs, but he started doing them with weights strapped to his ankles so that it would be easier in a real game,” recalled former teammate Quinton Fortune.
“He would practise even when training finished. He would practise a trick slowly by himself. Then he’d try it in training games. Finally, he’d do it in a real game. If he saw someone do a new trick he would ask them how they did it. Then he’d teach himself until he was the best. I used to balance the ball on my forehead and roll it onto the crown of my head. Cristiano asked me about it. Three days later he was better than me at it and he actually goaded me to say that he was better.”
And if players didn’t know what Ronaldo was like from training, they’d see if they went to his house for something to eat. The food would be there, but Ronaldo would insist on some form of competition afterwards, from a swimming race to a competition to see who could keep the ball up the most using their weaker foot.
As well as scoring 118 goals in 292 games for United between 2003-2009, He also became the first Old Trafford player since the 1960s to win the European Player of the Year award – before he joined Real Madrid in 2009.
He’s up against Queiroz, who knows his talents better than anyone.
“We will try to win the game,” explains Queiroz. “Nobody gives Iran a chance, but we always fight to realise our dreams.”
Not for the first time, Queiroz has said that he is going to quit as Iran boss after the tournament. Iran only wanted to give him a six months extension to his contract but Queiroz, who took them from the seventh ranked Asian team to the first, saw that as an affront.
But, like Ronaldo who thinks he has play until he is 41, Queiroz wants to go on.
“I still have that winning animal inside my stomach,” he said. “I wake up every morning, I run and I want to fight, to win, to be a role model, to make everyone better around me. I have qualified for four World Cups and want a fifth.”
He would become the first coach to do this.
“I have much more appetite to do this,” he says. “Training has never involved sacrifice, work or suffering. It has always been a pleasure.”
There could be pleasure and pain for him up against Ronaldo in Saransk.